House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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6. The Physical and Administrative Setting

The Chamber

The South Corridor, hung with portraits of former Prime Ministers, links the Confederation Hall to the Commons Chamber. At the west end of the corridor is the spacious, high-ceilinged foyer of the House of Commons, which may also be accessed from the Members’ entrance at the western end of the Centre Block. On the four walls of the foyer, just below the balcony which overlooks it from the floor above, is a series of 10 bas-relief sculpture panels depicting 25,000 years of Canadian history from the arrival of the aboriginal peoples to that of the United Empire Loyalists in the late eighteenth century. [24]  Opening off the foyer are the doors to an antechamber which leads into the Chamber itself. [25] The doors are made of white oak and trimmed with hand-wrought iron. Members tend to use the smaller doors to either side of the main doors; these lead into the antechamber and then into the government and opposition lobbies, rooms behind the government and opposition benches, which also open onto the Chamber.

Each day when the House meets to conduct business, the Speaker’s parade [26] moves from the Speaker’s chambers through the halls of the Centre Block, entering the antechamber through the large centre doors and proceeding into the Chamber through a second set of doors.

The Chamber itself is rectangular in shape, measuring approximately 21 metres in length and 16 metres in width; it is also sheeted with Tyndall limestone as well as white oak and, like its counterpart at Westminster, it is decorated in green. [27]  (See Figure 6.3, The House of Commons Chamber.) The 14.7-metre high ceiling is made of linen canvas, hand-painted with the provincial and territorial coats of arms.

The floral emblems of the ten provinces and two territories are depicted in 12 stained-glass windows on the east, west and north walls of the Chamber. [28]  On the east and west walls, above the Members’ galleries and between the stained-glass windows, is the noted British North America Act series of sculptures. It consists of 12 separate bas-relief sculptures in Indiana limestone. Each one depicts, in symbolic and story form, the federal roles and responsibilities arising out of the BNA Act (now called the Constitution Act, 1867). [29] 

Figure 6.3 – The House of Commons Chamber
Image of the physical layout of the House of Commons. At the top of the image are the public galleries. Below the galleries, in the centre of the image and the Chamber, are the Speaker’s chair, the seats for the Pages, the Table for the Clerks and Table Officers, the Mace sitting on the Table, seats for the Hansard Reporters, and finally the Sergeant-at-Arms desk at the South end of the Chamber. To the left of the image are the seats for government members and above them various galleries for visitors. To the right of the image are the seats for opposition members and above them various galleries for visitors.
Source: Information Service, Library of Parliament.


The Chamber is divided by a wide central aisle and is furnished on either side with tiered rows of desks and chairs, facing into the centre. Government Members sit to the Speaker’s right, opposition Members to the left. The Prime Minister and Cabinet sit in the front rows of the government side; directly across the floor from the Prime Minister sits the Leader of the Opposition who is flanked by Members of his or her party. The second-ranked opposition party and all other recognized parties in the House sit with their leaders usually to the left of the Official Opposition, closer to the Bar of the House. Traditionally, the front-row seats to the left of the Speaker are reserved for leading members of the opposition parties, and opposition parties are allocated front-row seats in proportion to their numbers in the House. [30]  The distance across the floor of the House between the government and opposition benches is 3.96 metres, said to be equivalent to two swords’ length. [31]  When there are more government Members than can be accommodated on the Speaker’s right, some are seated on the left, usually nearest the Speaker. Members of parties not recognized in the House and independent Members are assigned seats at the discretion of the Speaker, usually at the rear of the House on the Speaker’s left.

The allocation of seats in the House is the responsibility of the Speaker and is carried out in collaboration with the party Whips. [32]  Seat assignments may change from time to time, but the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are always seated in the same places. It is customary for seats to be assigned near the Chair for the use of the Deputy Speaker and other Chair occupants when they are not presiding over the House; no such allocation is made for the Speaker. [33] 

The Chair

The Speaker’s Chair stands on a dais [34]  at the north end of the Chamber with the flag displayed on either side. [35]  In the years after Confederation, it was the custom for departing Speakers to take their chairs with them and a new Chair to be made for the new Speaker; [36]  this custom ceased in 1916 when the Chair then in use was destroyed in the fire. A new Chair arrived in 1921 as a gift from the British branch of what is now the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. [37]  This Chair is an exact replica of the original Speaker’s Chair at Westminster, made circa 1849, and then destroyed when the British House of Commons was bombed in 1941. It is approximately four metres high, surmounted by a canopy of carved wood and the Royal coat of arms. The oak used for the carving of the Royal arms was taken from the roof of Westminster Hall, which was built in 1397.

In recent years, the Chair has undergone some minor renovations. Microphones and speakers have been installed and lights placed overhead. The armrests now offer a writing surface and a small storage space, as well as document holders onto which can be fixed the seating plan for the House. A hydraulic lift was also installed to permit more comfortable seating for the various occupants of the Chair. [38]  At the foot of the Chair, visible only to its occupant, are two screens. The first, which was installed during the Thirty-Fourth Parliament (1988-93), is a television monitor, enabling the Speaker to see the House as the camera sees it. The other is a computer screen, installed during the Thirty-Fifth Parliament (1994-97), by which the Speaker can receive information from the Table, which is equipped with laptop computers. During debate, for example, or when other time limits apply, a Table Officer activates the digital “count-down clock” and the Speaker is able to monitor the length of speeches and interventions.

At the foot of the dais below the Speaker’s Chair is a bench where some of the House of Commons pages are stationed during sittings of the House. The pages are university students employed by the House of Commons to carry messages and deliver documents to Members during sittings of the House. [39] 

A door behind the Speaker’s Chair opens onto a corridor, called the Speaker’s corridor, leading directly to the Speaker’s chambers. Hanging in this hallway are portraits of past Speakers of the House. [40] 

The Table

A short distance in front of the dais and the Speaker’s Chair is a long oak table where the Clerk of the House, chief procedural advisor to the Speaker, sits with other Table Officers. [41]  The Clerk sits at the north end of the Table, with Table Officers along the right-and left-hand side of the Table. The Clerk’s chair was made in 1873. After the death in 1902 of the then Clerk, Sir John Bourinot, the chair was presented to his widow; in 1940 it was donated back to the House by the family. The Table is equipped with microphones, small television monitors and laptop computers. The laptop computers are used to keep the records, [42]  to relay information to the Chair and, as they are connected to the House network, to send and receive information via electronic mail to and from other branches of the House. The Mace rests at the south end of the Table. Also on the Table is a collection of parliamentary reference texts for consultation by Members and Table Officers, a pair of bookends, a calendar stand, inkstand and seal press. [43] 

The Mace

The Mace is the ornamental staff, symbol of the authority of the Speaker, which rests on the Table during sittings of the House. In the Middle Ages, the mace was an officer’s weapon; it was made of metal with a flanged or spiked head and was used to break through chain-mail or plate-armour. [44]  In the twelfth century, the Sergeants-at-Arms of the King’s Bodyguard were equipped with maces. These maces, stamped with the Royal Arms and carried by the Sergeants in the exercise of their powers of arrest without warrant, became recognized symbols of the King’s authority. Maces were also carried by civic authorities.

Royal Sergeants-at-Arms began to be assigned to the Commons early in the fifteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Sergeant’s mace had evolved from a weapon of war to an ornately embellished emblem of office. The Sergeant-at-Arms’ power to arrest without warrant enabled the Commons to arrest or commit persons who offended them, without having to resort to the ordinary courts of law. [45]  This penal jurisdiction is the basis of the concept of parliamentary privilege and, since the exercise of this privilege depended on the powers vested in the Royal Sergeant-at-Arms, the Mace — his emblem of office — was identified with the growing privileges of the Commons and became recognized as the symbol of the authority of the House and of the Speaker through the House. [46] 

At Confederation, the House of Commons’ Mace was that of the former Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. [47]  It had survived the burning of the Parliament building in Montreal in 1849, [48]  as well as two fires in Quebec City in 1854, [49]  but was lost in the great fire of February 3, 1916. When the House met in the Victoria Memorial Museum (as it was then known) in the immediate aftermath of the fire, the Senate lent the House its mace. For the following three weeks, the mace belonging to the Ontario Legislature was used until a temporary mace, made of wood, was fashioned. The Mace currently in use is a replica of the original. Made of silver covered with heavy gilt, it is 1.47 metres long and weighs 7.9 kilograms. It was a gift from the Lord Mayor and the Sheriffs of London and was presented in May 1917. [50]  The wooden mace was kept; it is displayed in the foyer of the House of Commons and is used in the Chamber on the anniversary of the date of the fire. [51] 

The Mace is integral to the functioning of the House; since the late seventeenth century it has been accepted that the Mace must be present for the House to be properly constituted. [52]  The guardian of the Mace is the Sergeant-at-Arms, [53]  who carries it on the right shoulder in and out of the Chamber at the beginning and end of each sitting of the House. At the opening of a sitting of the House, the Mace is laid across the foot of the Table with its crown pointing to the government side of the House. When the House sits as a Committee of the Whole, it is placed on brackets below the Table; [54]  and during the election of a Speaker, the Mace rests on a cushion on the floor beneath the Table. The Mace is kept in the Speaker’s Chambers when the House is adjourned. During the longer adjournments and recesses, it is on display in or near the Commons Chamber.

The Bar of the House

The Bar is a brass rod extending across the floor of the Chamber inside its south entrance. It is a barrier past which uninvited representatives of the Crown (as well as other non-Members) are not welcome. [55]  When the House sits as a Committee of the Whole, departmental officials are permitted onto the floor of the House in order to assist the Minister. The Sergeant-at-Arms, or an assistant, sits at a desk on the opposition side of the Chamber and inside the Bar.

Individuals may be summoned to appear before the Bar of the House in order to answer to the authority of the House, or to respond to questioning. If someone is judged to be in contempt of the House — that is, guilty of an offence against the dignity or authority of Parliament — the House may summon the person to appear and order that he or she be reprimanded by the Speaker in the name of and with the full authority of the House. On a number of occasions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, individuals were summoned to appear before the Bar of the House. Since 1913, there has been just one instance of the House requiring someone to appear at the Bar. [56]  Witnesses to be examined by the House will also stand at the Bar and reply to questions posed by Members. [57]

The Galleries

Overlooking the floor of the House on both sides and both ends of the Chamber are galleries which can accommodate more than 500 people. (See Figure 6.3, The House of Commons Chamber.) In the gallery facing the Speaker’s Chair, called the Ladies Gallery, [58]  the first rows are reserved for the diplomatic corps and for other distinguished guests; the remaining rows are reserved for the visiting public. At the opposite end of the Chamber, immediately above the Speaker’s Chair, is the Press Gallery. Admittance is restricted to members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery [59] (one of the galleries in which note-taking is permitted). Immediately behind the Press Gallery is another public gallery. On the side of the Chamber facing the government benches are three galleries: one for guests of government Members, another for Senators and their guests, and another one for guests of the Prime Minister and the Speaker. Only from the Speaker’s gallery can distinguished visitors (such as heads of state, heads of government and parliamentary delegations invited to Canada) be recognized and introduced to the House by the Speaker. [60] On the other side of the Chamber, facing the opposition benches, a gallery is reserved for departmental officials (the other gallery in which note-taking is permitted), another for guests of the Leader of the Opposition, and two others for guests of Members of other opposition parties.

The doors to the galleries are opened at the start of each sitting of the House, after prayers are read. For reasons of decorum and security, photography, reading and sketching materials, and note-taking (with the above exceptions) are not permitted in the galleries. Coats, briefcases, notebooks, photographic equipment and the like may not be carried into the galleries. [61]  Guests seated in the private galleries must be appropriately attired. [62]


“Stranger” is a term of longtime use in the procedural lexicon; it refers to anyone who is not a Member or an official of the House of Commons (for example, Senators, diplomats, government officials, journalists or members of the general public). It underlines the distinction between Members and non-Members and gives emphasis to the fact that strangers or outsiders may be present in the galleries or within the parliamentary precinct only under the authority of the House. [63]  Strangers are not permitted on the floor of the House of Commons when the House is sitting. [64] 

The right of the House to conduct its proceedings in private — that is, without strangers present — is centuries old. Until 1845 in the British House, sessional orders excluded strangers from every part of its premises (while in practice the presence of strangers came to be tolerated in areas not appropriated to the exclusive use of Members). [65]  In Canada, at Confederation, the House adopted a rule giving individual Members the power to order the galleries cleared. [66]  In 1876, the rule was substantially amended, [67]  allowing Members only to move a motion “that strangers be ordered to withdraw”; this non-debatable and non-amendable motion was then left for the House to decide. [68]  The present rule, which was adopted in 1994, [69]  provides that the Speaker may order the withdrawal of strangers, and also that if a Member notices the presence of strangers, the Speaker “may” allow the non-debatable and non-amendable motion to be put. The House thus retains the power to order the removal of strangers and to meet privately. [70] In practice such occurrences are not frequent and strangers are welcome so long as there is space to accommodate them and proper decorum is observed.

Disorder in the Galleries

The Sergeant-at-Arms, one of the senior officials of the House, is responsible for maintaining order and decorum in the galleries. [71]  From time to time there have been instances of misconduct in the galleries and the Sergeant-at-Arms and security staff have acted to remove demonstrators or strangers behaving in a disruptive way. In cases of extreme disorder, the Speaker has directed that the galleries be cleared. [72]  In addition, should the House adopt the motion “That strangers be ordered to withdraw”, it would be the duty of the Sergeant-at-Arms and security staff to clear the galleries of strangers.


Adjacent to the government and opposition sides of the Chamber is a long, narrow room known as a lobby. The one behind the government benches is reserved for government Members; the other, on the opposition side, is for Members of the opposition parties. Connected by doors to the Chamber, the lobbies are furnished with tables and armchairs and equipped with telephones, fax machines, photocopiers, computer terminals and the like for Members’ use. Members attending the sitting of the House use the lobbies to converse, discuss matters, make telephone calls, attend to correspondence or other business and are able to return to the Chamber at a moment’s notice. The party Whips assign staff to work from the lobbies and pages are stationed in the lobbies to answer telephones and carry messages. The lobbies are not open to the public. The House of Commons security staff control access to the lobbies in accordance with guidelines set by the Whips.

Sound Reinforcement and Interpretation Systems

In 1951, a special committee of the House recommended the installation of a sound reinforcement system “similar to the one in the House of Commons Chamber at Westminster”. [73]  For some years, there had been complaints about the acoustics in the Chamber and the difficulty that Members and those in the galleries had in following the proceedings. The challenge in providing effective sound amplification lay in devising a system for use in an assembly where members speak from their places (rather than from a rostrum) and only when recognized by the Speaker. The committee’s report was adopted, the system was installed during a recess and used for the first time in the session which opened on November 20, 1952. [74]  Each Member’s desk, as well as the Speaker’s Chair, is equipped with a microphone. A microphone switching console, staffed by console operators, is located at the front of the gallery at the south end of the Chamber. Individual microphones are activated when a Member is recognized by the Speaker. Only the Speaker has the power to activate his or her own microphone (it may also be activated by the console operator); when the Speaker’s microphone is activated, the Members’ microphones will not function.

In 1958, the House agreed to the installation in the Chamber of a system for simultaneous interpretation in both official languages. [75]  Members were of the opinion that this would give further expression to the Constitution, which provides for the equal status of the official languages and for their use in parliamentary debate. [76] 

Enclosed booths for interpreters are located in the corners of the Chamber opposite the Speaker’s Chair. Members’ desks are equipped with interpretation devices in order to receive simultaneous interpretation of the proceedings into French or English. Visitors in the galleries also have access to the sound reinforcement and interpretation systems and may choose to listen to the proceedings with interpretation in the official language of their choice, or without interpretation.

Broadcasting Arrangements

Following the decision in 1977 to broadcast the proceedings of the House of Commons, [77]  the Chamber became the site of extensive construction to equip it for this purpose. During the summer adjournment, the Chamber was refitted: the sound systems were upgraded, appropriate lighting installed, cameras were added (operated manually and later replaced with remote-controlled cameras), and a control room was constructed above the Ladies’ Gallery situated at the south end of the Chamber. [78]  (The subject of broadcasting as an “electronic Hansard” is addressed in Chapter 24, “The Parliamentary Record”.)

Provision for Still Photography

Before the advent of broadcasting of House of Commons’ proceedings, photographs of the House during a sitting were taken with the permission of the House. [79]  In the late 1970s, once the House had dealt with the question of broadcasting, the matter of still photography arose. There were no provisions for print media to take pictures of the House at work, except by special arrangement, whereas the electronic media now had access to images of every sitting of the House. [80]  On a trial basis, and later to become standard practice, [81]  a photographer was allowed behind the curtains on each side of the House during Question Period. The photographers are employed by a news service agency which supplies other news organizations under a pooling arrangement. When in the Chamber, they operate in accordance with the principles governing the use of television cameras, described in Chapter 24, “The Parliamentary Record”.

Other Uses of the Chamber

At times, the House of Commons Chamber is used for purposes other than a parliamentary sitting. Some are recurring events such as addresses by distinguished visitors, [82]  orientation sessions for new Members, [83] and annual programs. [84]  At other times, the Chamber has been used for special events. [85]  Since these events are not actually sittings of the House, the Mace is not on the Table.

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